On the differing perceptions of engineers

Reading inel’s response to Sarah’s post about the future of engineering, I was interested when I read this bit:

Young people in Silicon Valley think it is pretty cool when I tell them I am an engineer. By contrast, many adults in Britain still conjure up an initial picture of me as a “grease monkey”—working under the bonnet of a vehicle, or repairing household electrical equipment. Young people generally have very little awareness of engineers’ roles.

Who (or what) is an engineer? Merriam-Webster’s relevant definition seems to be:

3 a : a designer or builder of engines b : a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering c : a person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance

And “engineering” is:

2 a : to contrive or plan out usually with more or less subtle skill and craft <engineer a business deal> b : to guide the course of <engineer a rally>

These definitions are rather unhelpfully vague, but I do like the emphasis on the use of “subtle skill and craft.” What I was looking for was some indication that these are people who have a lot of applied skill and knowledge. They are truly competent individuals.

It has been my impression that the main difference between scientists and engineers of various flavors is that scientists are often somewhat more concerned with the “why” of things, and the underlying theory, while the engineers get to deal with the “how” and all the practical applications of understanding the real-world implications of those theories. (Like the difference between educational cognitive researchers and teachers, for another example.)

But this past weekend, I was forced to admit that my definition of “engineer” may, in fact, be rather different from that of other people, and is perhaps overly influenced by the number of competent engineers that I know. I encountered what seemed to me to be an utterly antithetical use of the job description term “engineer” at a conference I was attending as a vendor. In trying to use our credit card machine, as we kept losing connection before any transactions could be completed, requiring us to run customers’ cards up to six times before the data actually went through. The hotel sent us an “engineer” to fix the phone line.

He worked on the problem for 5 hours, and never fixed it. He did not, in fact, even understand the nature of the problem. My boss had to call her husband (an actual IT professional, perhaps, one might say, a computer engineer) to get a real explanation, at which point we determined that the hotel “engineer” would never be able to fix it, given his complete and utter incompetence in this area, leaving me to wonder just what in the world the hotel management is using as their definition of “engineer.” I’m not entirely sure I want to know.

17 Responses to On the differing perceptions of engineers

  1. Mark says:

    For my own personal definitions, a scientist studies why things work the way they do. An engineer applies this knowledge to design new things. A mechanic (or any of a wide variety of related fields) engages in the ongoing repair and maintenance of those things, once they are built. The interesting thing, to me, is that I don’t have a general name for the class of people who builds the things that engineers design and mechanics maintain.

  2. inel says:

    Hi Mark,

    In answer to your wondering about

    a general name for the class of people who builds the things that engineers design and mechanics maintain

    … production engineer is the term for the professionals in that “class of people”.

    Production engineering and Design engineering are two parallel and independent tracks for engineers.

    You can take a look at The Engineer Online magazine, for example, that separates stories in its left-hand column into relevancy for:

    Design Engineering
    Production Engineering

    Beyond that, this magazine gives a good list of disciplines, as it separates stories by “channel”:

    chemical and process
    computers and IT
    electrical and electronics
    energy and utilities
    medical and pharmaceutical
    military and defence
    rail and marine
    structural and civil

  3. eiffelover says:

    I like the following definition for what engineering is…

    “The art of manipulating the world for the benefit of humankind”

    It is general enough to apply to most things and is more about the approach than the subject.

  4. inel says:

    Hi eiffelover,

    Thanks for drawing my attention to Geek Buffet.

    Unfortunately, I see politicians as being very good at “the art of manipulating the world” … and they would sell this as being “for the benefit of humankind” 😦

    That’s why I wrote yesterday:

    Engineers apply science to improve the world through technology.

    but now I think my definition needs even more specifics:

    Engineers use ingenuity, creativity and logic in the application of science to improve our world through technology.

  5. inel says:

    Here’s another version, which just goes to show the persistence of engineers to provide an improved solution 🙂

    Engineers use ingenuity and logic to apply the principles of science and mathematics in order to devise and develop innovative products—economically viable responses that satisfy technical requirements in the real world.

  6. Rami Nasser says:

    Inel, I like your definition, and may I add:
    Engineers must have a university degree in engineering
    Engineers must follow a code of ethics (like http://www.ironring.ca)
    Engineers must design safe products

  7. Mark says:


    Does that mean, then, that the person who designed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t the civil engineer everybody thought he was? I think that one could make a strong argument for any of your three points in isolation, but that they each have problems, and taken together, they are overly restrictive.

    Was Archimedes not an engineer? He certainly didn’t have a college degree in Engineering. DaVinci designed a host of products that simply aren’t very safe (I wouldn’t want to go for a ride in a machine resembling his design for a helicopter, for example). Combat engineers, by definition, are more interested in designing things that are unsafe in predictable ways. Are thermonuclear weapons “engineered”, or simply “hacked”?

    I understand your desire to make the title of “Engineer” one that cannot be casually used by untrained people, to the detriment of those who actually are trained and competent. I commend your desire to make Engineering beholden to standards of ethics. I think that’s something that would benefit any field. Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be used as a matter of definition.

  8. Mark says:


    Pardon the long delay in my reply, but I have to ask. Is production engineering really about building things? I would have thought (perhaps in ignorance) that it is the practice of devising better ways to build things. A production engineer, in my view, would be someone who devises a better order for components in a car to be bolted to the frame, allowing lower rates of error, higher strength in the connections, or just reduced time or effort on the part of the person operating the pneumatic wrench. On the other hand, I’m not sure that assembly line workers are really production engineers, per se.

    Maybe the term I’m looking for is just “Worker” or “builder”, but I’m still not sure.

  9. Rami Nasser says:


    Clark Eldridge is an engineer because he must have considered safety when he designed the bridge. (I would call him a bad engineer because his design failed.)

    All proof-of-concept prototypes are considered research science not engineering. Designing a marketable and safe product is engineering. Example (warning: my background is in RF design); it is very easy for a hobbyist to design a simple two-way radio, but to design a two-way radio that is safe to use, marketable and FCC certifiable is engineering, thus I wouldn’t call anyone an engineer.

  10. Mark says:


    By that logic, if Clark Eldridge (thank you for supplying the name) was an engineer, your rule would be that engineers must attempt to design a safe product. By that rule, in turn, the well-intentioned hobbyist that did his level best to produce a two-way radio that was safe might well cause every electronic device within a hundred miles explode in a shower of sparks. So long as the intent was to produce a safe device, it was good enough?

    Your rules, as stated, require engineers to never make mistakes, which is clearly not a viable restriction. This would be like declaring any tennis player who ever faulted on a serve to no longer be allowed to call themselves a player. I work as a Software Engineer (there’s that term again, though I’m remarkably comfortable with the idea that writing good code is part science and part art. Like very, very formalized creative writing, but I digress). By your rule, if I ever wrote a program that had a bug in it, and something bad happened as a result, I’m no longer a programmer. Or I am, and all that is required is that I didn’t mean to cause the error. Neither is a satisfying definition, in my mind.

    Leonardo built a number of design prototypes. Some of them, he tried out, and then refined the designs. Some of those designs actually work, and work remarkably well. We could then argue, by your definitions, that he was both an engineer and a scientist. Fair enough, but I disagree with the fundamental point that this logic is based on (though I certainly don’t disagree with the natural conclusion, I think that he was both).

    There is lots of activity which would be very difficult to argue was research science. Designing a bridge of a type never before attempted, for example. That huge one they built in France a while back comes to mind. This was, in effect, a prototype for some of the technologies and techniques included in the construction. Now, you can try to argue that this was research science, but I would tell you that it is civil engineering, and I think most people would agree with me. Worse, however, is that your definitions suggest, at the point that they intersect one another, that which it turns out to have been can only be determined in hindsight, when we find out if the design was safe or not. If it collapses, it was science. If it stands for years, it was engineering. Your definitions, by my interpretation, require a rather… quantum view of engineering. And quantum engineering begins to sound an awful lot like science, doesn’t it?

    I also note that you don’t mention Archimedes at all. Are you prepared to grant me that he was an engineer, despite having never received a college degree at all, let alone one in the field of Engineering?

  11. […] address your latest question: Is production engineering really about building […]

  12. Dana says:


    I like your most revised version of the definition. (I am, by trade and preference, more of a word geek than an engineering geek, so I am appreciative of your persistent efforts toward clarity of term.)

    Alas, it clearly does not apply to that hotel “engineer” in any way, leaving us still to wonder what his job title should have been. “Maintenance” would seem the obvious choice, but he was differentiating himself from the other people who held that title. Technical maintenance, perhaps?

    Definitely *not* an engineer, by your or any other right-thinking person’s definition, though.

  13. Mark says:


    As I noted in my comment on your post, I’m comfortable with the definition you seem to be giving for what a production engineer is, but we seem to agree that production engineering is different from the basic construction/building that I was trying to find a word for. I keep waiting for one of these self-proclaimed word geeks to help me out here, because my own vocabulary, which I would have liked to think of as quite extensive, is failing me.

  14. inel says:

    Production engineers are professionals in the manufacturing industry.

    Architects are professionals in the construction industry.

    Manufacturing workers work in the manufacturing industry.

    Construction workers work in the construction industry.

    More details in my comment in response to your comment on my post.

  15. Mark says:


    You have, as it turns out, answered my question, by accident or design, in your reply. The term I think I was looking for was “Craftsperson”. That is to say, someone who builds or crafts things, but does not necessarily involve themselves in the design, or devise the process they use. They execute the design, based on a pre-existing process.

  16. TheGnat says:

    Hm, I’ve always thought of my dad as a “production engineer”. He builds bakery equipment. He is the last person left in the field who knows everything about everything. Currently he’s designing a pair of ovens. However, there is no manual to a bakery oven for building it. You just have a huge pile of metal *things*, and somehow or other you stick them all together, and the tools to do so range from very small screwdrivers to forklifts. Engineering in the general sense definetly applies, because it is a jigsaw puzzle with no lid to the box. People who do not use engineering to build ovens and the like are called “riggers”, and it’s a derogatory term because invariably someone calls my dad about how there are left over parts, missing parts, or the thing just doesnt work outright, because they hired riggers. The electrical, on the other hand, has a process that riggers do not design, and generally don’t screw up. But there, my father is an *engineer* because he draws his own plans for more efficient, safer electrical systems.

    It might be noted my father went to a CEGEP, which is a kind of Canadian vo-tech “college”, and therefore doesn’t even have an AS. His education taught him how to be a “craftsperson”. He has no formal education in design or engineering. Yet I would call him an engineer, in no uncertain terms, because he *does* do design work as a normal part of his job.

    I also do not see why being ethical is a requirement to be called an engineer. Frankly, we call doctors that, in spite of the fact that most of them don’t even accept the idea of vowing to “first, do no harm” just because the oath’s orginal text pledges one to the service of the Greek gods and bars one from surgery.

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